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'The Woman Who Wouldn't Talk' by Susan McDougal with Pat Harris

Distrust for Starr kept McDougal quiet and imprisoned

Sunday, June 01, 2003

By Ken Gormley

Of the spate of books that have come out on the Clinton-Whitewater scandal, few are as intriguing as Susan McDougal's story.

She's best remembered as the attractive young woman shown in 1996 being escorted to prison in shackles because she refused to testify in the investigation of President Clinton by independent counsel Kenneth Starr.

"The Woman Who Wouldn't Talk"

By Susan McDougal with Pat Harris

Carroll & Graff ($25)


Married at 20 to the eccentric Arkansas real estate developer and businessman Jim McDougal (who later died in prison while cooperating with Starr), McDougal had been involved in setting up the Whitewater real estate venture and Madison Guaranty Savings & Loan, which produced a tangle of unorthodox business practices.

Although Starr's office ultimately found no wrongdoing by the Clintons in Whitewater-related matters, it was the simmering pot that re-ignited the Paula Jones civil harassment case that boiled over into the Lewinsky investigation and led to Clinton's impeachment.

Throughout this political scandal-of-the-century, Starr's office remained convinced that Susan McDougal held the key to information that would incriminate the Clintons and vindicate its five-year investigation.

Yet she adamantly refused to cooperate, emerging from prison in 1998 with curvature of the spine and debilitating health problems. The most common theories explaining McDougal's silence are that she was hiding an affair with Clinton and that the Clintons had bought her silence.

McDougal dismisses these explanations as fanciful: Her relationship with Hillary Clinton was chilly from the start, and she hadn't seen Bill Clinton since the mid-1980s. Of the rumored affair, she writes: "Have you ever seen the way he looks in a pair of running shorts?"

Her book explains why she refused to give Starr what he wanted.

I must interject a brief disclaimer here: I am working on a book on the entire Clinton scandal and have met with Susan McDougal in Arkansas for several interview sessions. I have found her to be an interesting, lively subject.

She is sympathetic to the extent that her ex-husband Jim McDougal, an alcoholic and manic-depressive, was unquestionably the mastermind behind their dubious business ventures.

That disclaimer aside, the book was much better than I expected. Not only is it surprisingly well-written for a first book -- it is co-authored with California lawyer Pat Harris, her former fiance who advised her throughout the ordeal -- but it is a book within a book.

Woven throughout the pages is a moving account of a woman's life in prison; McDougal spent nearly two years in seven different institutions.

Many of the most touching, humorous and signal passages deal not with denying having an affair with Bill Clinton, but rather with a cast of women who changed her life -- for the better -- while she grappled with her own conscience in jail.

There is the story of McDougal's own confinement at "Murderers Row" in California (housed with two women who had "stomped a little girl to death"). And her stay in a "glass cage," where she was segregated in a room made of Plexiglas so that she could see but not hear other prisoners, "like watching a silent movie," until she was on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

She suggests that Starr's office was responsible for that treatment.

Running throughout the book is plenty of fresh material about Whitewater. Her hatred for Starr and his lawyers is evident from start to finish, and it colors her impressions in a way that require taking some accounts with a grain of salt.

Yet her blunt, no-holds-barred, irreverent perspective (punctuated with Southern humor) is hard to dismiss as contrived. We learn about:

Jim McDougal's impulsive Whitewater land development in a remote area of the Ozarks. He visualized it as a "destination for the political elite" of Arkansas. The Clintons bought a share during a 20-minute conversation at the Black-Eyed Pea restaurant, a meal they regretted for the next three decades.

Her initial meeting with Starr's office, at which she contends she was eager to cooperate. When the prosecutors offered global immunity in return for a proffer about "the Clintons' role in Whitewater," she indicated she would make such a proffer, but she knew of nothing illegal the Clintons had done. At that point, "the smiles disappeared."

Jim McDougal's pestering of Susan, after their conviction, to fabricate a story that would satisfy the prosecutors: "If you'll just say you had sex with Bill Clinton," he allegedly told her, "they'll give you anything you want."

"That's just great, Jim," she replied. "Now you just want me to be a whore. ... That is one story my mother will never see in print."

Ultimately, she never cooperated with Starr's office because "I despised the OIC [Office of the Independent Counsel] and all its hypocrisy."

She was convinced that if she told the truth about the Clintons' involvement, that they had virtually no role and did nothing wrong, Starr would "accuse me of perjury."

Whatever one may think about the rationality of that decision, it is clear that Susan McDougal believed that the investigation was a "witch hunt" that would ensnare her one way or another.

In 1999, Starr brought a second round of charges against this recalcitrant witness, but an Arkansas jury acquitted her of obstruction of justice.

Some will forever speculate that Clinton's pardon of Susan McDougal before he left office indicates that there was a deal to buy her silence. But anyone who reads her book will doubt the plausibility of that theory.

The moral of this book is simple: She did it for Susan McDougal, not for Bill Clinton.

Ken Gormley is a professor at Duquesne University School of Law and author of "Archibald Cox: Conscience of a Nation," the biography of the first Watergate special prosecutor.

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